Mike Tyson and the Hornet’s Nest: Military Lessons of the Lebanon Crisis

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

August 1, 2006

The great nineteenth-century Prussian soldier Helmuth von Moltke argued that the most basic rule of war is that “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” While some think that “Never get involved in a land war in Asia” (from the movie The Princess Bride) should now move up the list, it is true that no matter how well you plan, uncertainty lies at the very nature of war.

As we enter the third week of fighting in Lebanon, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are relearning that things do not always turn out as planned. While it planned for a quick, relatively costless smashup of Hezbollah that would finally eliminate the group from the political playing field, the plan’s execution has turned out to be far less effective and even more costly than predicted. The crisis has grabbed the world’s attention, and it is likely that not only militaries, but also terrorists and militant groups are taking notes. One is reminded of how the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu had such a magnified influence that Bin Laden cites it repeatedly, while Saddam Hussein even handed out copies of Blackhawk Down to his generals. If this is the case, five lessons stand out:

1.     The State Made War, But Will War Undo the State?

Well-trained and equipped with the latest American-made (and paid for) technology, the Israeli Defense Forces are matched by no military in the Middle East, and some argue, on a qualitative basis, are among the best in the world. Indeed, in 1967 it only took them six days to knock out every military in the region and they did so again in 1973. But the problem is that this time they are not taking on a state or states. While authoritarian Arab regimes haven’t been able to muster even the semblance of an effective threat against Israel for more than three decades (mainly because their militaries are made up of ill-trained, unwilling conscripts, led by regime cronies), there is a new model military in the Arab world -the non-state actor. That it lacks the political authority of a state hasn’t kept Hezbollah from presenting the sort of conventional war threats that only a state used to possess. Its arsenal includes everything from surface to surface rockets to unmanned aerial vehicles, meaning it has moved past the usual tools of the trade of terrorist groups. At the same time, Hezbollah is still playing by unconventional rules, with actions ranging from terrorist style kidnappings to computer hacking (at least according to Israeli media, Hezbollah hackers penetrated a few IDF systems on the first day of the attacks). With motivated cadres and smart leaders who have the group digging in deep, waiting for ambushes, and strategically shifting rocket threats to keep the Israelis off balance, Hezbollah has been holding its own against the IDF in a way that Arab generals (and publics) have only dreamed about for more than three generations.

It’s a scary prospect not merely for the IDF, but also for Arab state regimes. The writer Charles Tilly famously opined about the rise of nation states with the saying that “War made the State and the State made War.” Lacking a democratic mandate, and generally offering broken public services, the one thing that authoritarian Arab governments had going for them with their populace was opposition to Israel. Now, their ineffectiveness at even this is further shown in sharp contrast.

2.     Intelligence Matters

The Israeli plan was to rapidly knock out Hezbollah’s rocket sites and command and control networks in the south of Lebanon, erasing the group’s capacity to be a military threat. At the same time, it would cause enough havoc on general Lebanese infrastructure to both hamstring Hezbollah’s re-supply, while also sending a message to Lebanese elites in Beirut that they could no longer allow the paramilitary group free reign without consequences. The problem is that the plan was predicated on having good intelligence on three things, each of which has proved wrong.

First, the IDF needed to have good order of battle knowledge on Hezbollah, knowing how many targets there were and where to strike them. Instead, it is clear that it underestimated both the number and variety of weapons in the group’s arsenal (with the Israeli Navy even losing four men to an anti-ship cruise missile that it didn’t know Hezbollah had), as well as how to track down the group’s leadership after they went to ground.

Second, the plan depended on an understanding of Hezbollah as a brittle organization that would crumble if pushed hard enough. In actuality, the group has proven both motivated to fight and die (even welcoming each shootout as a strategic win, given that the Israelis didn’t want to fight it out on the ground) and flexible enough to stay effective under great pressure.

Finally, the plan depended on the belief that Israel’s bombs could send just the right message to the Lebanese elites. Instead, the general takedown of infrastructure and resultant civilian casualties and refugee flight has backfired, inflaming opinion not against Hezbollah, but against Israel. Moreover, the whole house of cards stood on an understanding of the fragile Lebanese government as strong enough to stand down Hezbollah, if only it could be convinced to act. It wasn’t before the attacks, and certainly isn’t now.

Wrestling with how to understand, model, and predict the threats presented by non-state actors is one of the great challenges for intelligence agencies in the twenty-first century. It has been argued that the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies did a poor job at this prior to 9-11 because of a Cold War mindset that lacked cultural understanding and failed to prioritize al Qaeda as a threat. But none of these excuses can be applied to the Israeli intelligence services, as Hezbollah has been at the top of their list for more than decade. Our expectations may have to be lowered for state intelligence agencies dueling with non-state actors. It is starting to look like it is they who face a mismatch when it comes to carrying out Sun Tzu’s canon, “Know your enemy.”

3.     Air Power Only Gets You So Far

The debate over air power has been one of the great military disputes of the twentieth century. The controversy over just how much air power alone could accomplish in war extended from the court martial of one of air power’s first champions-Billy Mitchell-in the 1920s to the huge investments made in strategic bombing during World War II and the Vietnam War. Israel’s air force chief, Lieut. General Dan Halutz showed which side of the debate he was on when he told Knesset members 5 days into the conflict that, “With all the technology we have, there is no reason to start sending ground troops in,” citing Kosovo as his campaign model.

In the latest case study, at this point, Israeli warplanes (again, mainly U.S.-made) have now made more than 2,500 sorties in conditions that are about as good as an air force can ever hope for. They faced no opposing air force, no air defenses, had stunningly short distances to fly, which allowed them lengthy time to loiter over the battlefield, and had even good weather. The result: Hezbollah neither gave up ground nor lost much capacity to pop off rockets. Since the campaign started, the group has fired more than 2,000 rockets, with more than 150 rockets landing in Israeli territory in just the last 24 hours.

The takeaway for militant groups is that as long as you dig deep and don’t show all your cards early, air power alone can’t knock you out of the fight. The takeaway for nation states is that while air dominance is certainly nice to have, it is still only an enabler to victory; it is not a guarantee. Something tells me we are unlikely to hear the U.S. Air Force mention this episode the next time bigger budget items like the F-22 come up for debate in Congress.

4.     Very Expensive Ambulances

But the woes of air power shouldn’t leave the army rejoicing either. When IDF bombs couldn’t roust Hezbollah fighters out of their strongholds on the border, IDF ground troops were sent in. The original plan was small, lighting commando raids that would strike quickly and pull back across the border. But Hezbollah didn’t play along and had prepared a network of bunkers to ensure a tough slog. An IDF commando raid into the town of Maroun al Ras turned into a three day battle, with 23 IDF soldiers killed and 80 wounded.

When the IDF moved on to Bint Jebeil, perhaps the most significant Hezbollah position on the border, it decided that it was not only going to have to hold onto to territory, but that bigger was better. The raid turned into a small-scale invasion of almost 5,000 troops, backed by armored units. But the seeming technologic trump-card of tanks, which have long ruled Middle East battlefields, didn’t tilt the equation; they instead just proved larger targets on a close-in, rough, urban battlefield. Three Israeli Merkava tanks (the Merkava, which means “Chariot” in Hebrew, is considered a rough equivalent of the U.S.’s M1 Abrams main battle tank) fell prey to ambushes that used sophisticated antitank missiles, IEDs, and landmines respectively. By the second day of the Bint Jebeil battle, a Time magazine reporter wrote that the Israelis were mainly using their armored “chariots” as ambulances to ferry wounded soldiers back across the border. Tank warfare just ain’t what it used to be.

5.     Asymmetric Ends, Rather Than Means

Many point to the future of conflict as being “asymmetric warfare,” a post 9-11 catchphrase for when the other side doesn’t play by the rules. The argument behind asymmetric warfare is that while advanced states like Israel and the U.S. have achieved dominance on the battlefield, the other side is finding different, usually dirty, ways to fight back on other levels, typically involving something like terrorism against civilian targets. The term has become so popular that it is not only used in Pentagon documents and even the National Security Strategy of the United States, but comes up more than 700,000 times on the Internet. As the fighting in Lebanon (as well as Afghanistan and Iraq) shows, this understanding misses the boat. Yes, groups like Hezbollah, the Taliban, and the Iraqi insurgents use terrorism against civilian targets, but they do not eschew battle as well. Instead, they are also showing the wherewithal to stay on the battlefield, engaging in head-to-head combat. The difference is that they are doing it better than most states in the region have in recent decades by deploying distributed units, picking the time and the place of their combat, and fighting with motivation.

The new asymmetry is not that our foes fail to line up their tanks in the desert for a long-distance turkey shoot or that the field of battle extends beyond borders. The far more important asymmetry is that the two sides have asymmetric measures of victory. To achieve victory under the terms of battle it publicly set out at the start, the IDF have to completely incapacitate Hezbollah, taking out its ability to strike Israel both today and in the future. And to do that, Israel may have to re-occupy southern Lebanon, opening itself to another round of insurgency and playing into Hezbollah’s hands. By contrast, Hezbollah just has to simply stay in the fight. If it can occasionally pop off a rocket to remind Israel it still has a pulse, its propaganda will claim maybe the biggest victory by an Arab fighting force since the Crusades. The true disparity lies in the ends, rather than means. The dark challenge for the U.S. is that the same disparity applies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A reporter recently asked me for a non-military metaphor to capture the Israeli military’s predicament. While its sounds a bit odd, the one that came to mind is that of a boxer being matched up against a hornet’s nest. He surely wants to punch at it with gloves on from afar, sticking and moving. But since one blow is unlikely to kill them all, he has to be amazingly precise, wasting energy on an effort to knock each and every hornet out of the air before he runs out of steam. His other choice is to pulverize the nest up-close, opening himself up to hundreds of stings. If the stings pile up, it likely won’t knock him out, but it could just drive him crazy enough to go Mike Tyson and do something stupid and more costly, such as, say, lash at out the referee (UN peacekeepers) or harm the spectators (civilians). There is simply no easy solution and no one should go into such a fight expecting one. Or, as Iron Mike once said, in his own version of von Moltke, “Everyone has a plan, until they get hit.”